Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

January 31, 2013

From Obstacles to Opportunities: Coming Together to Put "Kids First"

From Apathy to Community: Coming Together to Put Kids First

How Milken Educator Dr. Carrie Buck (NV ’08) led C.T. Sewell Elementary through a step-by-step transformation from desperation to five stars.

When Dr. Carrie Buck first arrived as principal at C.T. Sewell Elementary School in 2006, she encountered a rundown, graffiti-covered facility in the old section of Henderson, Nevada. “The campus was struggling,” she remembers.  “I had applied elsewhere and  had received several rejections from more affluent schools. At the time, I had no idea how truly lucky I was to have such a great opportunity.”

During her initial walk around campus, her supervisor noted that it looked like a prison with its gray walls. The data coordinator warned her that students transferring to the school were doing better than Sewell students. “Not anymore,” says Dr. Buck, a recipient of the 2008 Milken Educator Award for Nevada. Colorful murals, landscaping, a vegetable garden, and a tortoise habitat have replaced the neglected drab building. But painting and planting was the easy part. The makeover was just the start. A true revitalization occurred when the school community adopted the principal’s vision with focus and vigor.

MuralsThe story of C.T. Sewell Elementary follows the remarkable transformation of a reinvented school which advanced from “Needs Improvement” to a five-star “High Achieving” school under Dr. Buck’s leadership. The school faced multiple issues: Student attendance, truancy and discipline were huge concerns; poor test scores which showed little growth; low teacher retention with 40 to 50 percent transferring out every year; a lack of resources, technology and an outdated computer lab frustrated the staff; only a small group of parents participated in school events; and there was little support from the community at large.

“The campus lacked teamwork, ownership and involvement,” notes Dr. Buck. After surveying the staff, the principal found the school’s climate was one of “distrust, apathy, poor communication,” and realized that collaboration was virtually nonexistent. Another challenge to address was meeting the needs of a highly diverse student body; a population of 730 represented by 65 English Language Learners, 121 students with Individual Education Plans, and 510 students on Free and Reduced Lunch plans.

A large portion of Sewell’s families represent a culture of poverty in which many cope with physical and mental disabilities, incarceration, and substance abuse issues. Students and their families often go without very basic needs. The community looks to the school to offer support.

“Kids First” Campaign for Excellence: Performance, Assessment and Accountability 

Carrie and Kelani

“When donors find out that I am a Milken Award winner and we have improved our school so much, it gives me added credibility.”
— Dr. Carrie Buck (NV '08)

Pursuing a new motto for the school, “Kids First,” Principal Buck and her team implemented a turnaround campaign to revitalize the campus, and shift perceptions of the school based on a philosophy—intrinsic to the Milken Family Foundation—that “effective human capital needs to be the focus of great schools.  People make the difference.”  She created the C.T. Sewell Empowerment Model which “communicates the vision, mission, values and instructional plan to the faculty so they are clear about the importance of collaboration and high expectations for themselves and their students.” 

Next, Dr. Buck implemented a system for teacher evaluation to ensure that the school plan was carried out. Each teacher is observed to assess classroom effectiveness, knowledge of the curriculum, instructional practices, classroom management strategies, dedication, and the ability to build relationships with students and encourage them to achieve at high levels. Formal evaluations are based on student assessment data, individualized goal-setting, observations of classroom instruction and learning environment, student engagement, and active participation in the school.

Rigorous assessments of teacher performance do not happen in a vacuum. They are supported by regular staff development that Dr. Buck has revamped to align to individual teacher’s needs.  The principal, grade level chairs and instructional coach work one-on-one with the teachers to establish clear goals, provide assistance, gather resources, and assess continual growth. When teachers receive low or moderate ratings, they are provided the opportunity for peer assistance, reflective practice and a mentoring program.

“The philosophy is to collectively be continuous learners,” Dr. Buck explains. 

  • Welcome to C.T. Sewell Elementary!
  • Students and families participate in a holiday event hosted by a local donor.
  • Students work together in learning teams at a literacy center.
  • The teacher conducts a small group reading lesson while other students work independently at learning centers.
  • Like butterflies from the cocoon, CT Sewell Elementary has undergone a transformation inside and out.
  • Student performance groups perform at school events. Performance groups include: Cheerleaders, Sparklers, and Color Guard.
  • Students are receive their weekend snack bags. Distributed to at-risk students to provide food over the weekend, snack bags are sponsored by Serving Our Kids and Three Square.


In addition to the individualized support, the faculty is engaged in workshops, coursework, book studies and active discussions.  Teachers develop curriculum and assessment strategies, plan and deliver lessons, engage in an ongoing cycle of inquiry, and make instructional adjustments to improve results.

From Collaboration to the Classroom

Creative strategies discussed in weekly professional learning communities are designed to spark student engagement, mastery of concepts, and meaningful instruction. Grade levels work collaboratively to develop pacing calendars and assessments that marry the adopted curriculum and supplemental materials with the Common Core State Standards.

With the implementation of differentiated instruction and uninterrupted core subject blocks, teachers focus on grade level standards and provide structured interventions. In reading, teachers meet with reading groups to focus on individual students’ levels in fluency and comprehension; in writing, teachers confer with individual students to ensure specific feedback; and in math, teachers meet with small groups, focusing on mastery of concepts. 

5th grade Inclusion

Student success is based on continuous assessments that indicate progress. From these results, teachers receive immediate feedback on students’ levels and place them into differentiated groups. Enrichment strategies are implemented for students who exceed standards, while extensions are developed for students who meet standards but are working to exceed them. Intensive and strategic interventions are provided for students who do not meet standards.

Special education students benefit from the general education setting with appropriate accommodations and researched-based interventions. The restructuring of the Student Academic & Behavioral Intervention Team (SABIT) process enhances accountability and organization of student progress. Each teacher works with a grade-level case manager and follows a timeline for thorough implementation.

The Results Are In

The acute focus on teacher skills has reaped rewards in student achievement.

Results have demonstrated a tremendous increase in English Language Arts (ELA) proficiency —from 35 to 81 percent (Series A) and from 36 to 90 percent proficiency in math (Series B). These impressive trends are real, evident, measurable and sustainable.

2003–2012 Overall Student Achievementcarrie buck chart

From 2006 to 2012, Sewell increased student achievement more than any other school in Henderson. In 2007, and again in 2012, the school was designated one of Nevada’s ‘High Achieving Schools.” Two years ago, Sewell led the Clark County School District—the nation’s fifth largest—in individual student growth percentiles for math. Most recently, the school ranked in the top 15 percent of the district.

Creating Partnerships to Fund Needs

With the school receiving limited Title I financial assistance, additional support had to be elicited from various grant opportunities. Focusing on “Kids First,” Dr. Buck sought resources through community investment by reaching out with an extensive advocacy campaign. “When donors find out that I am a Milken Award winner and we have improved our school so much, it gives me added credibility.”

CT Sewell Elementary Cheerleaders

She secured more than $3 million in grants and private funds, as well as donations for students and their families. Community partners granted teachers’ wish lists by upgrading classrooms and technology, fully integrating C.T. Sewell with modern, state-of-the-art equipment. SMART boards, computers, laptops and projectors were placed in every classroom. Others have donated food, clothing, shoes, immunizations and health services to Sewell students and their families. Two hotel casinos provide monthly incentives to students and support school functions such as literacy nights.

With partnership dollars plus involvement, the building was refurbished into a bright place where students and their families take pride—and learning takes place. Student attendance, truancy, enrollment, achievement and discipline statistics reveal remarkable results: Attendance increased to over 96 percent and enrollment is up eight percent. After funding a full-day kindergarten, student proficiency increased to nearly 95 percent. What’s more, teacher retention has increased dramatically with less than ten percent transferring over the last two years while staff surveys reveal a changed, positive attitude.  Participation in parent/teacher conferences hit 100 percent, “a number unimaginable for most at-risk populations,” notes Dr. Buck.

The Empowerment Model’s Culture of Care

 “Within the Empowerment Model, the district gives the school more autonomy over budget, staffing, curriculum and scheduling decisions,” she explains. “Anytime your school community has more control over decisions in areas that directly impact students, you are able to focus on ‘Kids First’ decisions and have more staff and community ownership.”

As stakeholders invest in a shared vision of high expectations, C.T. Sewell Elementary School’s positive culture is one of academic rigor, collaboration, parent participation, community involvement and empowerment. The principal’s leadership approach works to effectively communicate, expand participation and increase student achievement, thus motivating staff, building confidence and helping teachers increase their efficacy.  This multi-tiered, collaborative model provides continuous support and involvement from the entire school community—administrators, teachers, parents and community partners—leading to the personal and academic success of all students.

"It is evident that C.T. Sewell has become a community school in which students, parents and teachers are proud to be stakeholders. So many incredible changes have taken place, all who walk through the doors feel it...I didn't realize the true potential of the amazing community until we were able to get everyone on board to make it better. We created a culture of care. We rejuvenated a dying school by coming together to do what is best for our children. C.T. Sewell is a great place to learn!"

Ten Tenants of Leadership in Education

Dr. Carrie Buck's innovative leadership at C.T. Sewell Elementary School draws upon the Milken Family Foundation philosophy that “human capital needs to be the focus of great schools. People make the difference.” In accordance with this philosophy, Dr. Buck defines a leader as one who:

  1. Works each day to build relationships, guide performance, and move people to get exceptional results.
  2. Communicates, clarifies and ignites passion toward the highest outcome, inspiring, influencing and motivating people to do their best.
  3. Infuses energy and eagerness into team members so they desire to go above and beyond to reach exceptional project goals.
  4. Builds intrinsic confidence within employees by providing the necessary resources, training and skill development to ensure employee success.
  5. Understands the big picture and guides the team to put together every last detail.
  6. Empowers the team to be a vital part of the decision-making process, creating synergy, teamwork and ownership for the project's outcome.
  7. Ensures input from others, develops other leaders, and supports the team in each endeavor.
  8. Models effectiveness, efficiency and work ethic by actively being a participant in the implementation process, demonstrating a genuine commitment to the organization.
  9. Emulates integrity, and welcomes transparency and accountability for her actions; yet, she gives all accolades and credit to individual team members for their roles in the achievement.
  10. Cultivates a collaborative culture and increases job satisfaction to get exceptional results.

Dr. Carrie Buck (NV ’08) is principal of C.T. Sewell Elementary School in Henderson, NV. She can be reached via email at


Don’t miss any new articles and updates from Milken Educator Awards:   Subscribe Now